Mentor for refugee apprentices

Hartmut Stichel

In transfer 2/17 I wrote about my assignments abroad as a senior expert of the Senior Expert Service (SES). Whether I was engaged in vocational training or solving technical problems, putting my work experience and life experience to good use under what were sometimes difficult conditions was always an exciting challenge.

In addition to such assignments, SES has, for several years now, also been giving senior citizens the opportunity to get involved as volunteers in vocational training in Germany. This move was prompted by the observation that about 25 percent of all apprenticeship contracts are terminated prematurely for various reasons, often during the first year of training. Besides this, the desire to enable young refugees to gain vocational qualifications led the SES, in consultation with the chambers of industry and commerce, to start a mentoring programme, VerA (Verhinderung von Ausbildungsabbrüchen – Reducing the Drop-Out Rate).

VerA mentoring is provided free of charge for apprentices, the companies who train them, and vocational colleges. SES’ partners in VerA are the Federal Association of Freelance Professions (BFB), the Association of German Chambers of Industry and Commerce (DIHK), and the German Confederation of Skilled Crafts (ZDH). VerA is funded by the Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF).

Mentor for refugee apprentices

The programme works like a tandem: During an apprentice’s vocational training an SES expert provides support by meeting with them regularly. Since VerA was founded in 2008, well over 16,000 apprentices have been accompanied by a mentor with a 75% success rate.

I too have been acting as a mentor in this programme for five years now. Not only my technical expertise but also the intercultural experience which I gained through numerous development service and SES assignments is especially helpful when it comes to mentoring refugees.

I began by registering on the VerA website and then attended an introductory seminar to prepare myself for being a mentor. I soon received the first invitations to mentor refugees who were training to be metalworkers at the Vocational College of Metalwork (BfM) in Bremen.

The BfM runs special training programmes to make it possible for young people with learning difficulties (In the case of refugees, their learning difficulties are often due to a lack of knowledge of German or having left school without any qualifications.) to obtain a qualification at the end of their training. The support provided by SES senior experts completes the package.

Appreciation and encouragement

Ever since I’ve been involved in this programme, I have often observed that people with a migrant background struggle not only with the need to have adequate language skills and knowledge of particular subjects; They are constantly being faced with new challenges because of the peculiarities of German culture and their need to feel accepted. And they are often under strong pressure to provide material support for their family in the home country. This makes it extremely difficult for apprentices to focus on their learning goals, which demand a lot from them. This can easily become frustrating not only for the apprentices themselves but also for their mentors. And this can lead to feelings of resignation. But the young people usually experience our efforts as appreciation and encouragement – encouragement to continue their training with determination.

When they are rewarded with success at the end of their training, this confirms for me the importance of passing on one’s own work experience and life experience to young people through this kind of social involvement – especially now when, under the current corona hygiene regulations, we can only communicate via electronic media, such as WhatsApp, Skype, etc. or with social distancing and wearing masks. But that too will come to an end one day. In the meantime we have to make do with whatever can be done and make the most of it.

Hartmut Stichel acts as a mentor for young refugee apprentices.

Information about VerA is available here: vera[at] initiative,

Hartmut Stichel lived in Tansania from 1973 to 1975, in Peru from 1979 to 1981, in Tansania from 1998 to 2000, in Ethopia from 2006 to 2008 and in Ruanda from 2009 to 2013